Venable on Boylan, 'Losing Binh Dinh: The Failure of Pacification and Vietnamization, 1969-1971'

Author: 
Kevin M. Boylan
Reviewer: 
Heather P. Venable

Kevin M. Boylan. Losing Binh Dinh: The Failure of Pacification and Vietnamization, 1969-1971. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016. 365 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2352-5.

Reviewed by Heather P. Venable (Air Command and Staff College) Published on H-War (March, 2018) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50993

Kevin M. Boylan’s Losing Binh Dinh: The Failure of Pacification and Vietnamization, 1969-1971 seeks to test the revisionist claim that the United States was winning the Vietnam War through its pacification efforts after the Tet Offensive but lost anyway because policymakers did not stay the course. Boylan does this by focusing on a particular province to explore the interrelationships between pacification and Vietnamization, arguing that they worked at cross purposes, ultimately failing both to prepare South Vietnamese troops to fight independently and to eliminate the VietCong insurgency. Vietnamization, in particular, could not succeed because of poor South Vietnamese leadership, which also challenges the revisionist claim that indigenous leadership improved significantly after Tet.

Kevin Boylan draws on his dual background as a defense analyst concerned with Iraq, among other issues, and as a graduate with a PhD in military history from Temple University, where he studied under Russell Weigley. The author recently left his position as a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh to support his wife’s academic career.[1]Overall, Boylan challenges revisionist approaches, claiming they rely excessively on top-down assessments made by high-ranking policymakers and overly sweeping views of South Vietnam. By contrast, Boylan takes a bottom-up view focused on the specific province of Binh Dinh in order to better understand the localized and multifaceted nature of insurgencies. While certainly not the first to take this approach, he has chosen a province that represents a geographical aberration in South Vietnam, which made it especially challenging to pacify. In particular, it had poor soil that made it difficult to sustain its overpopulated numbers. Communist ideology thus found a receptive population, becoming entrenched as early as World War II, when the Viet Minh filled a power vacuum enabled by French defeat and gained a reputation as nationalists for battling the Japanese. In short, the province could be considered the Appalachia of South Vietnam.

Ironically, early pacification efforts made significant headway, offering hope that they might be successful. From April 1969 to December 1970, the 173rd Airborne worked in Binh Dinh to “secure individual hamlets” while providing training to the Territorial Forces that ultimately would replace it (p. 8). In this way, the approach certainly represented a more population-centric method of counterinsurgency than the United States previously had attempted in Vietnam, although it would be dangerous to draw many comparisons to recent US COIN efforts in Iraq and elsewhere because this program did not attempt to win “hearts and minds”. Rather, it represented a “quick fix” designed to regain “military control of enemy-dominated communities” (p. 48). This approach rested on policymakers’ assumptions that villagers were “apolitical” (p. 287). By contrast, the VietCong had a more targeted policy of maintaining their “psychological grip” on those villagers most likely to be active in leading their communities (p. 289), which provided them with an important advantage.

If Communist morale and activity did suffer greatly in 1969, however, those gains resulted from the efforts of US rather than South Vietnamese troops. Moreover, all of the US military effectiveness in the world could not counterbalance the local government’s political shortcomings. Simultaneously, the Phoenix program failed to destroy the Vietcong infrastructure even as the Communists increasingly responded to pacification’s successes by engaging in acts of terrorism against local government officials. By 1970, policymakers problematically sought to both enlarge and consolidate pacification, effectively working at cross purposes. The exodus of US troops from the country only made this even more unrealistic.

Meanwhile, the United States hoped optimistically that more training of the Territorial Forces might turn the tide. But Boylan compellingly argues that all of the training in the world could not solve the real reason Vietnamization failed—an almost unsolvable problem with South Vietnamese leadership. He depicts Vietnamese officers who eschewed the support of their advisers, just seeking access to “stuff”—particularly the logistical and firepower support the US provided. Most of their “casualties” resulted from desertions rather than battle. Advisers bemoaned that belaboring Vietnamization just made these patterns worse, because the South Vietnamese only became more dependent on the United States. In short, the South Vietnamese simply had not “commit[ed]” themselves to winning (p. 83). In large part, though, Boylan concludes that this can be explained by the fact that the “South Vietnamese themselves were never fooled” about the depth of US commitment (p. 295). This conclusion, however, rests on the kind of sweeping generalization about South Vietnamese morale that he critiques the revisionists for making, which ultimately challenges his provincial focus. A clearer overarching roadmap to guide the reader either in the introduction or within the individual chapters themselves also might have helped to alleviate some of these problems, as one frequently arrives at the end of a chapter with only the unfolding of the narrative to guide the reader as to the author’s overarching purpose.

It is almost impossible for the reader to avoid drawing tragic comparisons between today’s current conflicts and debates about how and if victory is even possible. Ironically, the United States did make substantial short-term progress in pacifying Binh Dinh, but it failed utterly at Vietnamizing the war, which made victory unattainable. Pursuing both at the same time was impossible. As a high-ranking US official wrote in 1970, “We have gone about as far as we can go in turning this country into an armed camp” (p. 289). This work could have done more to shed light on perspectives from the Vietnamese “camp,” but it does provide an excellent exploration of how Vietnamization and pacification coexisted uneasily in a challenging province in South Vietnam.

Note

[1]. LinkedIn profile, https://www.linkedin.com/in/kevin-boylan-538835128, accessed January 22, 2018.

Citation: Heather P. Venable. Review of Boylan, Kevin M., Losing Binh Dinh: The Failure of Pacification and Vietnamization, 1969-1971. H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50993

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

"it failed utterly at Vietnamizing the war"
So the repulse of the Easter Invasion by the huge conventional force equipped with 400 tanks, hundreds of Russian artillery, hundreds more AA guns, etc, didn't happen? When there were no longer any US ground forces involved? That was the signal success of Vietamization, and the pacification of so many other provinces, the arming by Saigon of the RF and PF who also battled the VC/NVA effectively in so may place, also tell us plainly what was working. As long as we provided the supplies and support, that is.
Picking one province as an example and then using it to "prove" the war was unwinnable is a valid as picking any one of the terrible defeats of the Union Army in the Civil War as proof that the South could not be beaten. Or one could have taken the revolt against Ho in Nghe An province in the North as "proof" that a communist government could not succeed. No individual situation in a large and lenthy conflict can be relied on as proving much of anything.

R J Del Vecchio

So the repulse of the Easter Invasion by the huge conventional force equipped with 400 tanks, hundreds of Russian artillery, hundreds more AA guns, etc, didn't happen?

Since the book (and the review) is about how well Vietnamization worked as counterinsurgency, the Easter Invasion is not a direct counterexample.

Picking one province as an example and then using it to "prove" the war was unwinnable is a valid as picking any one of the terrible defeats of the Union Army in the Civil War as proof that the South could not be beaten

It's more akin to picking one of the Union's victories and arguing that studying it closely reveals why the Union one. Still perhaps open to question, but defensible.

Halting the Easter Offensive of 1972 was certainly evidence of "some success" for Vietnamization, but not quite what I would call a "signal success." It was, overwhelmingly, the result of the massive application of US airpower -- Air Force, Navy, and Marine combat aircraft -- many deployed with remarkable speed into the theater -- delivering effective (for the most part) close air support. Lavish use was also made of B-52 "Arc Light" missions, some of which were devastatingly effective but many of which did little more than devastate the landscape. (In my opinion)

Massive air support was the keystone of President Nixon's policy (now much derided) to achieve "peace with honor." Such a peace could only be maintained by the threat, made explicit in Nixon's "secret promise" to President Thieu, to reengage with US airpower if Hanoi violated the Paris Accords. The threat was valid, in my opinion, so long as President Nixon was riding high on the broad approval of the 1972 American electorate, which gave him a lopsided victory over an explicitly antiwar candidate. It evaporated, however, when the Nixon administration was fatally tarnished by Watergate. Congress slashing two-thirds of US military aid to South Vietnam and passing the War Powers Act also escalated the endgame. Remarkable, perhaps, how quickly the antiwar electorate of 1972 became willing to wash its hands of the long war in Southeast Asia.

If we want to talk about counterinsurgency, then we have to examine the other part of Vietnamization. In which the government distributed hundreds of thousands of small arms to the Regional and Popular Forces (RF and PF), who by '72 were successfully defending the great majority of villages and killing nearly as many VC/NVA as the ARVN were. Were there no areas of VC-supporting villages, no native VC left at all? Certainly not the case, but the tide had turned fairly largely in the countryside. Cities were pretty safe, rocket attacks were over, Highway 1 was open the length of the country. Bottom line is simple, the guerilla war was never going to succeed, only the steady flow of NVA and supplies down the HCM Trail kept it going at all. Only a conventional invasion could bring victory, and the '72 experience showed the ARVN could handle that, with just some support. Once Hanoi and Moscow knew we weren't coming back and the supply flow to RVN went to a trickle, they set up for the '75 invasion and the end was utterly inevitable.

If we want to talk about counterinsurgency, then we have to examine the other part of Vietnamization. In which the government distributed hundreds of thousands of small arms to the Regional and Popular Forces (RF and PF), who by '72 were successfully defending the great majority of villages and killing nearly as many VC/NVA as the ARVN were. Were there no areas of VC-supporting villages, no native VC left at all? Certainly not the case, but the tide had turned fairly largely in the countryside. Cities were pretty safe, rocket attacks were over, Highway 1 was open the length of the country. Bottom line is simple, the guerilla war was never going to succeed, only the steady flow of NVA and supplies down the HCM Trail kept it going at all.
 

Yes, that's a major current historiographical interpretation, and, as the review explicitly notes, Dr. Boylan was seeking "to test the revisionist claim that the United States was winning the Vietnam War through its pacification efforts after the Tet Offensive but lost anyway because policymakers did not stay the course."  So in essence you're summarizing the viewpoint that Boylan wrote the book to investigate.

Well, again, I believe the 1972 Easter Offensive was not "handled" by the ARVN with "some support." A great deal of support, actually, I maintain. A massive infusion of US airpower resources from the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Along with a fairly well-structured bombing campaign against North Vietnam, coupled with a naval blockade. Could the US maintain this level of support, or threat of support, indefinitely? Only as long as President Nixon, the "mad bomber," was in office.

You are absolutely correct that by 1972 "only the steady flow of NVA and supplies down the HCM Trail" enabled North Vietnam to continue the war. And the sad fact is that no matter how much air interdiction we generated, we could never halt that flow of troops and supplies. And boy, did we try! (It was that part of the war with which I was personally involved.)

An open flank is an open flank, and short of a "Harry Summers solution" it would always remain open. I wish we had realized that early enough to make an intelligent decision about whether or not to provide military support to the RVN.

David Silbey is right about what Boylan was trying to do with this book. At one time, long ago, I believed that the success or failure of the RVN and US counterinsurgency effort would determine whether the Vietnam War could be won. The problem I failed to recognize is that the communist regime in North Vietnam was from the outset and throughout the Indochina wars, a "non-status quo" power. Their objective of unification under their leadership persisted in spite of the waxing and waning of the war in the countryside, in South Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was, in the end, all that really mattered. That, and waiting out the determination of the United States to continue its involvement and support of the Saigon government. That determination lapsed a couple of years ahead of schedule, when President Nixon resigned in disgrace.

So I wonder: would it have taken a highly-prescient military leadership, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, to recognize that in the long run we could not block that open flank in Laos, and were therefore doomed to failure?

Ralph Hitchens is correct in saying that the Republic of Vietnam would have been a lot better off if North Vietnamese forces had not been able to infiltrate through a long and essentially indefensible border between South Vietnam and Laos. But the RVN would also have been a lot better off if there had not been so many South Vietnamese fighting on the other side.

A strong effective government in Saigon, having the loyalty of the South Vietnamese population, would have been able to make infiltration across the Laotian border a suicide mission for North Vietnamese troops.

One jousts with Edwin Moise only with the greatest care and deference. I wonder how it is that the government in North Vietnam ensured the loyalty of its population, and how it recruited supporters in the South? Did the communist regime employ tools of social control not readily available to the GVN? Was Ho Chi Minh's regime better able to extinguish potential sources of competing political power, particularly after the predictable one-way population transfer (north to south) of close to a million people, after the end of the French Indochina War?

Many of us who served over there still question whether the "American War" was a "just war." I think history has shown that the Korean War was certainly a "just war" given the way societies have evolved north and south of the DMZ. Are our doubts about Vietnam irrelevant? Are we not justified asking whether the final outcome of the Second Indochina War in any way reflected the will of the people of South Vietnam? Is a victorious war that generates a huge diaspora a "just war," or do we accept that victory is its own justification?

For sure I believe the outcome in Vietnam over the last several decades has been much less severe than what has been seen in other countries where a Marxist-Leninist regime came forcefully to power, and it's been encouraging to see the willingness of the SRV to welcome back not only US military veterans as tourists, but also overseas Vietnamese from the diaspora. And, of course, to become a "status quo" power by making peace with the USA and most of its neighbors. Still, what characterizes a Marxist-Leninist regime is the ruthless but effective social control of the majority of the population with enforced policies determined by a self-selecting elite. I therefore think we were right from a moral standpoint to wage war in support of the non-communist regime, but perhaps wrong -- also from something of a moral standpoint -- because we should have known that we could not close that open flank, and would not be willing to persevere long enough for South Vietnam to become more like South Korea.

I doubt if anyone in the "Greatest Generation" ever fell prey to conflicting thoughts like these.

The key to the difference between the governments in Hanoi and Saigon is on that phrase "strong effective government" that I used in my previous post. Both governments were willing to use brutal and ruthless violence against their enemies, and when they thought it necessary, against members of their own populations. But the Communist leaders in the North had a great many loyal agents, spread in a dense net through every hamlet and every neighborhood, to enforce their will on the population. Troublemakers got noticed, and if the government decided they needed to be dealt with, they could be arrested or imprisoned. Even in the worst period in the mid 1950s, when many thousands were being imprisoned, tortured, and executed on false charges, the network of personnel carrying out the atrocities was dense enough that it could treat each household, and often each individual, as a separate case.

Personnel infiltrated into North Vietnam, to start guerrilla operations against the Communist government, accomplished next to nothing because the Communist government was able to round them up without much difficulty.

The Saigon government never had even close to the same number of trustworthy and loyal officials to enforce its will. Lacking a dense net of police and other control organizations, it was unable to prevent the Communists from recruiting large numbers of personnel in South Vietnam. The US government liked to pretend that the Communist forces in South Vietnam were more North Vietnamese than they actually were. But even after the terrible losses the Viet Cong suffered in the Tet Offensive, southerners remained a large component of the Communist forces in South Vietnam. The MACV estimate for October 1968, well after Tet, showed the Communist forces the way MACV counted them (regular combat troops, support troops, and full-time guerrillas, but not the part-time Viet Cong militia or the "Infrastructure") were believed to have a total strength of 251,455. Of these 34.4% were said to be in North Vietnamese units, and 5.2% to 6.4% were northerners serving in Viet Cong units. Simple arithmetic indicates that a clear majority, about 60%, were actual southerners serving in Viet Cong units. I would not regard these figures as reliable, but exaggerating the proportion of southerners among the Communist forces was not MACV's usual bias.

The South Vietnamese government bombarded South Vietnamese villages with artillery and air strikes, frequently, because it was too weak to use more discriminating methods of control.